domino effect

Until recently, sports cars were road cars with sporting aspirations, being built for the road first with high-performance parts added after the fact. BMW’s Motorsport or Porsche’s GT department are basically well-funded tuners, but better motors, suspension, and aero can only push the underlying package so far. This uprated road car philosophy has started to come under serious fire.

Ford wanted to win Le Mans on the 50th anniversary of their much-heralded string of wins over Ferrari with the original GT40. Initially, they tried to modify the Mustang, but it quickly became apparent that the Mustang platform wasn’t going to be competitive. So Ford decided to develop a car to win Le Mans and sell enough road variants to satisfy the FIA rulebook. The result was the 2017 Ford GT.

2017-Ford-GT-front-three-quarters

Ford GT in “track mode” aka default

It’s a term that gets thrown around too often, but the Ford GT is legitimately a race car for the road. The suspension, aero, engine, and packaging are all designed for racing, and Ford subsequently crushed the competition. It was such a convincing win that Porsche’s 911 RSR, which competes in the Ford GT’s class, has gone mid-engined (sacrilege!) in an effort to remain competitive.

A similar phenomenon happened in the late 1990’s. McLaren’s F1 won LeMons outright with fewer modifications than you’ll find on most Miata at your local autocross. In response, Porsche and Mercedes produced the GT1 and CLK-GTR respectively. Similar to the Ford GT, these entries were designed as race cars first and road cars second. The difference between this instance and today’s is that the Ford GT’s class consists of conventional road cars (Corvette, 911, 488 and V8 Vantage) while the F1’s era was composed entirely of limited production multimillion-dollar race cars with license plates. The performance first mindset has trickled downmarket.

Screenshot 2017-09-24 at 10.55.15 AM

GT1 and CLK-GTR make the F1 look tame

And yet, the Ford GT feels almost tame compared to the upcoming crop of super/hyper/ultra-cars that are in the pipeline. If you can buy the car that won LeMans for only $500k from Ford, what do the premium brands have to offer?

Aston Martin is in the midst of preparing to release the Valkyrie. Like the Ford GT, it is built from the ground up for performance (read: high aero grip). Unlike the Ford GT, there is no racing series rulebook to direct or compromise its design. Adrian Newey, Red Bull F1’s head aerodynamicist, has been given free reign. The car promises near F1 levels of performance, and it looks to share more with an LMP1 prototype than a road car. It will be absurdly fast.

Valkyrie

The Valkyrie eschew’s heavy complex hybrid turbo power for a naturally aspirated V12

While the Valkyrie focuses on low weight and high aero performance, Mercedes has decided to build a car (the Project One) around their winning F1 engine. This is not the conventional approach where concepts are borrowed from F1. This engine is the same unit used in the race car: a hybrid split-turbo 1.6 V6. It will rev to only 11,000 rpm vs the race car’s 13,000 limit, but two electric motors have been added to power the front wheels for a total output in excess of 1,000 hp. Think Porsche 918 with more power, more aero grip, and less weight.

The downstream effects of these cars’ arrivals will play out over the coming years as other manufacturers design their next generation of cars with this competition in mind. I can’t wait to see what those engineers cook up.

PS. I imagine driving the Valkarie or Project One on public roads to be something similar to this.

 

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reference point

The 918 is undoubtedly the most polarizing car of the moment. A supercar focused on MPG? Ferrari and McLaren have hybrid supercars, but they’re for all out performance, not bragging rights at the gas station. Occasionally driving a battery-laden hybrid supercar in pure electric mode doesn’t make up for the fleet of gas powered cars their owners drive on a daily basis. Why cripple the weakest offender? It just feels backwards.

Shift your perspective

People talk about the purity of the driving experience as if it’s some sacred cow, not to be desecrated by electronics or anything synthetic. But when we break it down, every driving experience is synthetic. At its core, the car is a machine, and machines are inherently artificial by their nature. The term people are really searching for is predictable. Great cars feel intuitive because they operate in a predictable manner. They fall in line with our understanding of how cars are expected to behave.

My first driving experience didn’t convey much confidence. I remember sitting in a grocery store parking lot stabbing the brake as the automatic transmission crept the car forward without any provocation. It felt foreign. I simply had no frame of reference. I developed an understanding of how cars should react with that conventional car as my reference point. So I look at the 918 and see a car that is fundamentally different from almost everything before it, a new form of synthetic. It requires a dramatic shift from those familiar reference points.

Driving aids on

We often associate electronic systems with being a restrictive add-ons to the underlying vehicle’s dynamics, but the 918’s are just the opposite. They are essential to the car’s behavior. In full race mode with the electronics turned off, the systems are still juggling torque between the engine and motors. There is no true “off” switch.

Chris talks about the 918’s electronic systems deciding what the driver can enjoy. I fail to see how this is any different from the choice in spring rate or steering ratio. The engineers tested different iterations of software just like they tested different suspension setups in an effort to get the car to behave in a certain manner. Driving is about the experience. If that experience is enjoyable, does it matter the process?

How many hot laps?

My initial criticism of the 918 (here) still stands. There was never any doubt that the car would deliver tremendous performance. The question is more for how long can it go flat out? One hot lap in your million dollar supercar before you have to recharge your batteries? That would be ridiculously impractical, even by supercar standards.

don’t call it a comeback

The McLaren F1 is a hard act to follow. Designed to be the ultimate road car, it pretty much delivered on that premise. Gordon Murray, the man responsible for its development, abhorred the idea of a road car compromised for the track. The F1 was a no-expense-spared approach to a sports car built specifically for the street. Its outrageous performance (it won Le Mans outright) was a byproduct of Murray’s uncompromising approach and McLaren’s vast technical know-how.

Everything about this photo is awesome

Everything about this photo is awesome

So it was a little discouraging to learn that the P1, McLaren’s followup to the F1, was designed to be “the quickest and most rewarding series production road car on a circuit.” There is much to abhor in that awkward PR-fluffed mission statement. Throwing out the F1’s winning formula seems like a poor place to start but to repeat the F1 would be an even bigger mistake. Supercars need to point to the future. They can’t live in the past. They are about being first. The first for new design, new technology and new levels of performance. Their astronomical pricing is merely the cost of early adoption.

wild

Strangely beautiful for reasons I don’t quite understand

Love it or hate it, McLaren’s P1 has a look entirely its own. An amorphous blob of Hot Wheels styling, it’s a big middle finger to the F1’s clean and utilitarian 90’s styling. While McLaren doesn’t have the rich history with road cars of its rivals Porsche and Ferrari, the omission of F1 homage is refreshing. Heritage is a burden, just ask Porsche. Show me a car made faster by compromising for the sake of tradition.

With a power-to-weight ratio that is a terrifying 20% greater than a Bugatti Veyron, the P1 is sure to be obscenely fast, and yet all this performance stems from a hybrid drivetrain that was hardly fathomable five years ago. Is it perfect? Of course not. Conventional hybrid systems feel like a crude band-aid solution, and while some systems clearly have more potential than others, to discard them so prematurely in their development would be a mistake.

Technology doesn’t progress in some linear predictable fashion and to sit on the sidelines waiting for the perfect solution would see you waiting forever. There is always room for improvement. It is a never-ending process. In ten years, the tech in these supercars (P1, 918 and LaFerrari) will be laughable. Look at cell phones ten years ago; the Motorola RAZR was king. Even at the painfully slow pace of automotive innovation and implementation, it’s not hard to see the potential.

paper tiger

Seems a little premature to be donning the sacred Martini livery

I can’t recall any car having such a high profile development cycle with journalists getting ride-alongs in test mules and photo shoots with preproduction cars in flashy livery. I also can’t figure out why anyone would want to buy this car.

Objectively, the 918’s performance is staggering thanks to a hybrid drivetrain capable of producing 770hp and 78 mpg. Unfortunately, these figures are mutually exclusive. You can’t use 770hp and return 78 mpg. Fuel efficiency and performance occupy opposite ends of the spectrum.

The 78 mpg rating is based on the New European Driving Cycle (NEDC), a standardized test used to determine a car’s mpg figure, and the 918’s hybrid system is designed to optimize engine output specifically for the demands of the NEDC test. This tactic, known as cycle beating, requires 918 to be ladened with over 500 lbs of batteries and electric motors so to spend as much time as possible in full electric mode while undergoing NEDC testing. Even worse, electric mode limits the car’s performance to a 90 mph top speed and approximately 200 hp. It’s a heavy price to pay for a mpg rating that owners will never see in the real world, let alone care about in the first place.

GT3 R Hybrid’s flywheel system

Porsche’s own GT3 R Hybrid, the car they developed specifically to race against conventional gasoline powered race cars, eschews batteries in favor of a flywheel storage system. The head of Porsche’s motorsport R&D stated, “for performance applications, a battery recharges too slowly” which doesn’t serve to bolster the 918’s credentials. If Porsche built the 918 with a flywheel system, I would be in full support. Unfortunately, we’re stuck with the book smart equivalent.

The 918 draws some striking parallels to the Bugatti Veyron, coincidentally one of the least fuel efficient cars on the road today. Like the 918, the Veyron was devised around a set of massive but pointless performance metrics and then painfully massaged into production. Fortunately, those performance goals (1,001 bhp and a 250+ mph top speed) were complimentary, and the Veyron is very good at going fast as a result. But it’s also completely useless, even by supercar standards. To my knowledge, not a single private owner has reached the car’s top speed, and even fewer would argue that its chassis and grip are on par with its straight line performance. It can break traction in a straight line in 4th gear with AWD!

The 918 runs the risk of sharing the same fate as the Veyron, a very expensive fashion accessory.

I fear similar criticism for the 918 but for the opposite reason. While the Veyron was too focused on speed at the expense of all else, the 918 runs the risk of alienating everyone by being too much of compromise. Its contradictory performance goals spreading its real world performance too thin. No one is going to buy the 918 to limp around town in crippling electric mode just to get thumbs up from Chevy Volt drivers, and conversely, the same could be said for driving a 3,800 lb supercar with only 550 hp when the batteries are drained.

The sad truth is that the 918 is about creating brand recognition, not real world performance. Designed to hit as many buzzwords and performance metrics as possible, the car’s real target audience is everyone who doesn’t have to live with its glaring shortfalls and can just admire it from a distance. It’s a halo car, not a supercar.